Don DeLillo: A valiant and veracious postmodernist
To celebrate its 40th anniversary Picador has recently reissued a selection of classics, among them White Noiseby Don DeLillo. The work, originally published in 1985, won the National Book Award and established DeLillo as one of the most promising contemporary American writers. Today, it remains one of his best books, which gives a valiant and veracious picture of “human dread”, as well as of the horrors and ecstasies of life. The book also contains other signature postmodernist themes, such as the disintegration of traditional value systems; the homogenisation of culture; consumerism; capitalism; and spiritual exiguity. But above all – and this is what distinguishes DeLillo’s skill from that of other writers – White Noise is a work that prompts the reader to contemplate – with prodigious empathy for the characters – death both on an individual and a universal scale. A perilous subject, perhaps, but one DeLillo thinks innate in the “concentrated writing” that, according to him, almost always tends to “end in some kind of reflection on dying”.
Born in 1936 to Italian immigrant parents, DeLillo was brought up in the Bronx, New York, among a large Catholic-Italian community. “I think there is a sense of last things in my work that probably comes from a Catholic childhood,” DeLillo once said, speaking of his upbringing and religion as elements in his fiction, “For a Catholic, nothing is too important to discuss or think about, because he’s raised with the idea that he will die any minute now and that if he doesn’t live his life in a certain way this death is simply an introduction to an eternity of pain.” Monotheism is a mere spectre in White Noise, but the notion of death and its eerie omnipresence is ubiquitous. It presents itself as early as page 17, when Jack Gladney (the book’s protagonist and “chairman of the department of Hitler studies” in a prestigious small town college), speaking of his wife, Babette, and their marriage, explains that the question of “who will die first” inevitably comes up now and then. “I wonder if the thought itself is part of the physical love,” he continues, “a reverse Darwinism that awards sadness and fear to the survivor.” This line of narrative about the order of death between the two spouses, becomes the book’s ideological bloodline, multitudinous and nuanced, shaping its course and direction.
Jack and Babette live in an oneiric Midwestern town with four children – Heinrich, Steffie, Denise and Wilder – from their previous marriages. On the surface they seem to cohabit in blissful domesticity, secure in the knowledge of their mutual love. “Babette and I tell each other everything,” Jack explains, “when I say I believe in complete disclosure I don’t mean it cheaply, as anecdote sport of shallow revelation. It is a form of self-renewal and a gesture of custodial trust. Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow itself to be placed in another’s care and thoughtful regard, turned then in the moonlight in our pale hands, spoken deep, into the night about fathers and mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out, not even a dog with ticks or a neighbour’s boy who ate an insect on a dare. The smell of pantries, the sense of empty afternoons, the feel of things as they rained on our skin, things as facts and passions, the feel of pain, loss, disappointment, breathless delight. In these night recitations we create a space between things as we felt them at the time and as we speak them now. This is the space reserved for irony, sympathy and fond amusement, the means by which we rescue ourselves from the past.” What Jack fails to realise, however, is that it is not the past that represents the gravest danger but the future.
Jack mistakenly believes that Babette wants to die first as “she would feel unbearably sad and lonely” without him, but in fact her fear of death is far deeper and more crippling than his. So much so that it drives her to adultery in exchange for an experimental pharmaceutical drug called Dylar thought to quell thoughts of mortality, which in turn drives Jack to plot a murder. And thus the ostensibly happy familial union begins to unravel. This plot-line is juxtaposed with another of an airborn toxic threat, which sees the whole town evacuate for fear of annihilation. In weaving the two together, DeLillo compels the reader to confront the idea of death both relatively and intimately, a twist few other writers would take a chance on. White Noise is studded with typically postmodernist elements, consumerist establishments – supermarkets, airports, motels – in which “everything is concealed in symbolism, hidden in veils of mystery and layers of cultural material,” – the ever-increasing presence of the media, over-information and the sinister duplicity of technological developments, which both pose a fatal threat as well as alleviate it. Yet all these, although pertinent to the story, are also somehow merely secondary to the Gladney family’s trials and tribulations, their quotidian worries, fears, accomplishments, to “over-closeness, the heat of being”, and to the white noise of existence. And everything about the Gladneys appears authentic, captivating, from their seemingly aimless and inconsequential conversations to their choice of food, from their rational anxieties to their irrational and fractured complicity.
DeLillo captures the state of modern life, the society of the spectacle and the notion of the future as the here-and-now with considerable deft. Not only that, he manages to create a neoteric social satire, funny, plangent, absurd, terrifying and skillfully evocative of modern-day life. A life for which, according to one of Jack’s colleagues, we spend years trying to “devise a shape, a plan” – a plan which is in itself redundant, because, as the book’s resonant refrain suggests, “all plots tend toward death”. And while we wait for this dreaded day, we “wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly coloured goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cult of the famous and the dead,” in this age, our age, of the apocalyptic and the ordinary, rich in magic and dread.
Publication Date: February 2012
Paperback: 400 pages